Friday, May 20, 2005

AGRA, India — An ownership battle has erupted over the world’s most famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal, as it celebrates its 350th anniversary.

The magnificent 17th-century structure built by Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved queen, Mumtaz Mahal, is owned and managed by the Archaeological Survey of India as a national monument.

But the Sunni Waqf Board, which oversees Sunni Muslim graveyards and mosques throughout India, has staked a claim to the white-marble tomb, saying since the monument houses Muslim graves, the Taj belongs to it.

The Taj, in Agra in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, also contains other tombs besides those of Shah Jahan and his queen.

Contradicting the Muslim claim, a hard-line Hindu group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council), says the Taj Mahal’s builders constructed it after demolishing a Hindu temple dedicated to the God Shiva.

The Hindu group says the monument should be declared a temple and adds the key to the mystery lies in a sealed basement in the Taj that it says contains the “pillars and artifact of a temple.”

On either side of the massive platform on which the Taj stands are steps down to the basement that has been locked for as long as people can remember.

“If the basement is opened, it’ll reveal the truth. I know it contains Hindu pillars and temple artifacts,” said Agra VHP leader Raghvendra, who goes by only one name.

Subramanian Swamy, a former member of Parliament and federal minister and head of the regional Janata Party, recalled he was not allowed to see the basement when he visited the Taj in 1978.

“I was later called by [then Prime Minister] Morarji Desai who said I should not press the matter as it was in the national interest that the basement be kept sealed,” Mr. Swamy said. “The government has something to hide and the issue should be thoroughly investigated.”

The Waqf Board, which under powers granted to it under India’s 1950 Constitution can summon witnesses and decide cases involving its interests, is holding a hearing this week and has summoned the Archaeological Survey of India to testify.

If the board and the Archaeological Survey of India cannot agree, the case will go before the courts.

Archaeological Survey of India Administrator Ghulam Ali Qamar, the custodian in charge of the Taj between 1958 and 1976, says no one knows what is in the basement.

“We once tried to drill a hole to see what’s inside but the walls are so thick we couldn’t even make a dent,” he said.

Waqf Board Chairman Hafiz Usman said the body would do everything it could to establish its claim to the Taj and says “we will go all the way to the Supreme Court to get the Taj.”

The Waqf Board is also laying claim to 7 percent of the around $3 million paid annually by the 2.3 million tourists it draws each year.

Mr. Usman said if the issue was not resolved amicably, it could turn into another flash point like the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya, also in Uttar Pradesh.

The mosque was razed in 1992 by thousands of Hindu zealots, most of whom belonged to the VHP, claiming it was built by the Mogul emperor Babur after demolishing a temple of Hindu God Ram.

The mosque’s destruction sparked nationwide riots in which at least 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.

Historian Akhilesh Mithal, an expert in Indian historical monuments, said there was no truth to Hindu claims that a temple preceded the Taj.

“There’s clear evidence the land to build the Taj was purchased from the Maharajah of Jaipur,” Mr. Mithal said. “I’ve seen a map which clearly shows there was only a garden on the land where the Taj stands. There was no temple.”

There is confusion over when the Taj Mahal was completed. Some believe it was ready as early as 1644 — making the 350th anniversary celebrations more than a decade too late. Some believe it was completed in 1648.

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